Even as he has matured and mellowed over the years, there’s still an air of rebelliousness and unpredictability surrounding rapper R.A. The Rugged Man. The gruff and scruffy Long Island-based MC, who first signed to Jive Records at age 18, has a résumé that bridges the gap between rap’s old-school roots (he recorded with Wu-Tang Clan and the late Notorious B.I.G.) and the contemporary alternative hip-hop scene. And although he promises things are different now, along the way he gained a reputation as a dangerously loose cannon.
“Your mentality changes when you get a little bit more experience in your life,” R.A. says in a phone interview before embarking on a 10-date tour that stops in Missoula Wednesday, Jan. 24. “It’s not all hate-hate-hate anymore. When I was 18 every line was hate. Now, only about 60 percent is hate.”
R.A., aka R.A. Thorn-burn, earned his bad-boy persona. Raised in a broken home by his father, a Vietnam vet and mental patient who suffered from the effects of Agent Orange, R.A. was discovered on the New York battle scene and signed with the prestigious Jive in 1992. While he recorded with some of rap’s biggest names, R.A. never cut an album of his own. When he performed live, he often pulled stunts such as tying up hookers onstage—“there was some S&M shit,” he says flatly—and tossing amps onto the crowd. Jive dropped R.A. due to his behavior, and his onstage antics led most East Coast clubs to blackball him from 1995 to 1998.
“You can ask people that were in my circle 15 years ago when I was younger and they’ll tell you some wild shit that I’ve tried to put out of my mind,” R.A. says. “It was the ignorant, dumb shit that young kids do. You’re broke your whole life, get a big-ass check from a record label and you get a little bit crazy and a little bit wild.”
R.A. insists things have changed. In 2004 he released his first-ever solo album, Die, Rugged Man, Die on Brooklyn independent label Nature Sounds. The album, featuring the singles “Lessons” and “Chains” and a heavy biographical slant, was well received by critics and experienced strong sales. R.A. is also branching out into other media, writing regularly for Vibe, King and Mass Appeal, as well as getting his horror-movie fix (he’s a huge fan of the genre) by writing and producing a new film now in postproduction. Needing funds to pay for the completion of the latter, he just signed another record deal with Nature Sounds and will return to the studio later this year.
“[With Jive], I would sign and just keep their money. I couldn’t deal with the fact that once I signed they thought I was their puppet,” he says, showing no love lost for the “clowns” at his first label. “Back then, they didn’t have this whole underground, indie movement so you had to sign your record deal, deal with all these big-wig record fucking fools, and now it’s kind of changed. Now, the market’s there where you can make music your own way, do whatever it is you want to do…I didn’t think I would be excited to get back into the studio, but I am. I’ve been listening to new beats all week.”
His most recent collaboration was with the Philadelphia hip-hop duo Jedi Mind Tricks. In addition to having just completed a nationwide tour with JMT, R.A. contributed the track “Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story” to their 2006 album, Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell. The highlight of the popular track comes when R.A. delivers an arresting onslaught in the second verse, a nonstop stream of rhymes that tell the story of his father at war.
“The only part that’s not totally accurate in the whole entire thing is that he didn’t catch a bullet in his chest. It’s too long of a story, but everything else is 100-percent true,” says R.A., who did explain the full story in the interview and, sure enough, it would have added about 18 bars to the song. “It’s an important song to me. If you’re a true artist, whatever the fuck you are, your history is going to be a huge influence on what you make.”
Die, Rugged Man, Die and his work with JMT point to R.A.’s evolution as both performer and writer. While he insists, “I’m still the same motherfucker. It ain’t like I changed for nobody,” he is channeling his energy into more introspective projects and minimizing the career-threatening antics.
“I’m good at not being like that any more,” he says. “I lose control maybe once, twice a year and I used to lose control two, three times a day. I’m the good guy right now. I even get invited over now, “Like, ‘hey, R.A., come over for dinner.’ That didn’t happen before.”
But for all his newfound manners, don’t expect R.A. to water down his live show. There shouldn’t be any hookers or thrown speakers, but the MC does still bring the same level of energy to the stage.
“Michael [Jackson]’s a pedophile so nobody wants to watch him anymore. James Brown is dead. So this is where the Rugged Man has to come in,” he says. “I’m here to fill the gap.”
R.A. The Rugged Man performs at The Loft Wednesday, Jan. 24, at 10 PM. $8.